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If It Doesn’t Have a Bench, Is It Still a Park?

This article has been adapted from the September 2016 issue of Parks & Recreation Magazine, the official publication of the National Recreation and Park Association. Through its pursuit of key issues, trends, and personalities, the magazine advances American parks, recreation, and conservation efforts. You can read the full-length article here.

This is the first post in a three-part series on park benches. 

Think about the last time you visited a park. What did you do? Did you just pass through, or did you stay a while? Did you bring a book, your dog, a Frisbee? Did you sit down? Or did you want to sit, only to find that your single option was the ground?

In 2013, the city of Norfolk, Virginia removed almost 70 benches from three small city parks. The benches weren’t in disrepair and they weren’t in a bad neighborhood. In fact, they were located in the revitalizing historic community of Ghent, and, if anything, were more than popular. Unfortunately it was the wrong kind of popularity. Following complaints of loitering, drinking, fighting, and even prostitution, the benches vanished.

3-carrying-bench-picture

Norfolk residents Carlton Pillar, left, and Gary Morton bring their own bench to a meeting about removals. Resident complaints had led to benches being taken out, but many others voiced outrage over the lack of seating. Photo credit: Hyunsoo Leo Kim, The Virginian Pilot

Norfolk isn’t alone. In recent years Pittsburgh has taken benches out of Allegheny Commons, Roanoke temporarily removed them from Elmwood Park, and Sarasota has done the same in Selby Five Points Park (although the city is now reconsidering). In New York City, a number of park benches were purposely removed in the 1980s, although that is no longer a standard practice. Philadelphia’s famous Fairmount Park is so lacking in benches that nearby residents drag portable chairs across busy Parkside Avenue to have a place to sit, and automobile visitors can be seen taking folding chairs out of the trunks of their cars.

Which leads to the question; is a park without benches even a park?

George Dusenbury doesn’t think so. The former director of the Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation suggested using the criterium, “Does it have a bench?” to distinguish his city’s 300-or-so “parks” from its scores of what he calls “just grassy traffic islands.” The question neatly illustrates just how important benches really can be—other than trees, it’s hard to find something as intrinsic to people’s concept of an urban park. The prominent advocacy organization New Yorkers for Parks even chose a park bench for its logo.

No one is anti-bench per se. The debate really comes down to whether this simple piece of furniture is seen as more of an asset or more of a liability. But bench misuse is a symptom, not a cause. The more deeply-rooted issues – poverty, substance abuse, and homelessness – require amelioration and solution from other city social service facilities. Digging deeper, the conflict is also over the perceived “proper” uses of a bench and ultimately over how society expects people to behave in a public space.

The bench – or lack of one – can clearly signal the purpose of a park: whether it should be “linger longer” or “you’ve got to move”. The latter approach smacks more of the corporate plaza, a space designed to deliver an impressive message of architectural beauty without the hassle of dealing with users. At the very least, a benchless park becomes just an empty plot of land. Sure, kids may run around on it and some nimble-bodied few may flop down on the grass if it’s dry, but this isn’t a park for everyone. Wordlessly it turns people away.

 

2 Responses

  1. […] This is the second post in a three-part series on park benches. Read the first post here. […]

  2. […] is the third and final installment in a series on park benches. Read the previous two posts here and […]

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